Joseph Marzelli is glad for the cheerful canary singing in the darkness of an Appalachian coal mine.
"As long as I can hear your song, I know I'm safe," Marzelli says in a heavy Italian accent as he explains the ins and outs of coal mining as it was done in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when miners used canaries as air monitors.
Marzelli is one of a crew of animatronic miners who greet visitors inside Portal 31, an underground coal mine that folks here have transformed into a tourist attraction.
In broken English, Marzelli, flanked by an animatronic coal-mining mule, shares his appreciation for his new home in America and a job that, at the time, was done primarily with picks and shovels and dynamite.
"Life is bellissimo," he says.
Folks in this historic mining community share his enthusiasm after turning the old mine into the centerpiece for the budding tourism industry built around coal. Three decades after Portal 31 played out, they're hoping the mine that meanders for miles beneath Black Mountain will once again be an economic engine for Harlan County while also honoring the lives of the hard-bodied men who braved darkness and danger to eke out their livings in the Appalachians.
Local resident Terina Widner, daughter of a coal miner who was killed in an underground explosion near here, said she's convinced Portal 31 can be an economic boon for the community.
"It's very realistic," Widner said. "This is a golden opportunity. We now have the key ingredient to pull this whole recipe of cultural tourism together in Harlan County."
Going back in time
Widner and her 8-year-old son, Brett, were part of a group that boarded a railcar in early October for a tour through the reinforced tunnels.
"Keep your arms and legs inside," a voice reminds the passengers. "Remember, safety first. As you can see from the posters, it's our motto here at Portal 31. Always has been, since the mine opened in 1917."
With that said, the railcar begins to rumble down the tracks and into the darkness of the mine. It's so dark at times, passengers can't see the people sitting around them.
"Now, just so you know, we'll be going not just through the mine, but back in time ...
"Our first stop, 1919."
That's when Marzelli comes into view and the railcar comes to a stop. Depicting a recent immigrant, Marzelli leans on his pick and talks to the snorting mule. Marzelli appears lifelike in the dim light. His lips move realistically as he discusses life as a miner after the turn of 20th century.
A Welshman yells from the darkness: "Fire in the hole." Then, the rumble of an explosion. It unnerves the mule. "Easy, calmare," Marzelli says in a calming voice. "Aren't you used to that noise yet?"
The roughly 30-minute tour involves eight stops, all of which depict a different era in mining, progressing to a modern-day exhibit that shows the kind of toothy machines that continuously chew coal out of the black veins inside the Appalachians.
Reinforced for safety
The $2.5 million project was decades in the planning and involved not only the creative talents of writers and designers but also the expertise of engineers like Steve Gardner of Lexington, whose job was to ensure tourist safety.
Gardner said he limited the tour to areas of the mine that have proven safe over nearly 90 years. He added so-called roof bolts, long metal rods drilled into the overhead rock layers to provide additional stability. Then he installed a super-strength metal mesh overhead. Tunnel walls were covered with a sealant to permanently bind the coal and rock in place. Contractors also sealed off unused mine tunnels to keep methane gases out.
Gardner and other designers then ordered an overhead metal cab for the railcar for yet another level of protection in case of rock falls.
"It was not difficult to make the mine safe," Gardner said. "It was just taking care of the basics."
‘Part of the intrigue’
Phyllis Sizemore, curator at the nearby Kentucky Coal Mine Museum, said the Portal 31 tours pay homage to coal miners, past and present.
"The economic boost, that's a significant reason to do something like this," she said. "But I'm not sure that's the No. 1 reason. The thing in people's minds here all along was to not let people forget the sacrifices of the coal miners, the dedication of the people who mined coal."
The tunnels are more than 6 feet from floor to ceiling, but Gardner said people who are claustrophobic or scared of the dark may want to stay clear.
"We think that's part of the intrigue," said Bruce Ayers, president of Southeast Community College in nearby Cumberland. "We really believe in order to sustain a bona fide tourism program, you have to have one big ticket item, and we're hoping this will be the catalyst around which we can build a tourism industry."
Ayers, head of a committee that championed the Portal 31 project, said many components that made Lynch and surrounding towns a tourist destination already were in place — most of the row houses, stores, schools and churches built by coal companies in Lynch and nearby Benham and Cumberland are still standing.
Mine create U.S. ‘industrial might’
Gardner said he's hopeful some of the 1 million people who visit the nearby Cumberland Gap National Historic Park each year will decide also take in Portal 31 and other nearby sites, including the Kentucky Coal Mine Museum that now attracts about 30,000 people a year.
Locals have bought into the idea, warmly greeting visitors. Lawns are manicured. Public areas are spotless. Old miners still living here are happy to tell stories about what life was like when every able-bodied man in Lynch had a good-paying job in Portal 31. Women share what it was like to stay at home worrying while husbands and sons toiled underground.
The retired coal miners also lead the underground tours. They recount how, in 1917, the U.S. Steel Coal and Coke Co. bought 40,000 acres and formed Lynch, which was named for the company's first president, Thomas Lynch. They tell how over a 40-year span, more than 1 million tons of coal per year passed through Portal 31. And they proudly share that Lynch's tipple — the place coal is loaded onto rail cars — was the largest in the world when it was built in the early 1920s.
"In the 46 years that this mine was open, it played a pretty big part in helping create the industrial might of America in the 20th century," the tour guide says.
As the tour wraps up, the guide turns his attention to the thousands of men from 37 countries who once worked in the mine.
"They built a town and created a community," he says. "They carry the legacy of pride and perseverance that was earned through generations of hard work and mental toughness, those special traits that define the spirit of the miner, the true legacy of Portal 31."